Of all the cuisines and culinary genres, there is one that, particularly for the last few years, holds a place of honor in the heart and stomach of self-styled foodies (a category that basically includes real foodies plus everyone who aspires to be known as such for fear of social ostracism). Other types of food may be easier to come by. They may offer lighter fare (a bit of an understatement) and may be generally more popular, but I’d swear that none are as truly beloved as Bukharan food.
What makes it so? Lots of things. Its various clever ways of uniting dough with meat certainly play an important part. We’ve written here recently about our fondness for this winning combination — and this cuisine offers a whole range of marvelous variations on this theme, be they fried, steamed, boiled or baked. So there’s that, sure, but there’s more to it. And the delicious rice dishes and juicy skewered meats don’t really explain it either. Perhaps part of the explanation lies beyond the food itself. This type of cuisine has an anti-modernist, anti-Instagram, anti-pop-up appeal: You want to post pictures of food? Go buy some black ice cream at a kiosk on Rothschild Boulevard. You want to really eat? Get yourself some goshtgizhda and dig in.
Hanan Margilan, the popular Bukharan restaurant in the Shapira neighborhood that offers all of the highlights of the genre, has long been an open secret. The only problem there is that it’s impossible to eat everything there at once, so one must choose: plov or the divine garlic fries; steamed manti or a deep-fried cheburek; kebab or lamb skewer. And so on and so forth. Whatever you order, you won’t be able to help thinking about what you had to omit this time. Oh, and there’s another problem: There are 12 months in a year, and only three or four of them are climatically suited to the menu’s flagship dish: the dushpara (or dushbara), hands down the best soup in town and probably in the country.
This was exactly why I was curious — OK, overjoyed — when I heard that Samarkand, nearby, offered “summer dushpara.” Obviously, I wasn’t expecting this seasonal adaptation to be some kind of diet version.
The Tel Aviv branch of Samarkand (There’s another in Or Yehuda) is a pretty huge space, divided into a banquet hall, private dining room, patio, restaurant and self-service area, which is where we headed. The display cases near the cash register showed the different baked and fried options, alongside a large variety of giant meat skewers. In addition to the summer dushpara, we ordered goshtgizhda (10 shekels, $2.80, each), bilishi (10 shekels each), cheburek (3 for 30 shekels), manti (5 for 45 shekels) and a gorgeous skewer called Fillet Roulade — Bukharan specialty (beef fillet rolled with lamb fat, 34 shekels).
The pastries ranged from disappointing to OK, and the reason was clear: The bilishi — a deep-fried, meat-filled round — and the baked goshtgizhda, had sat around in the display case before being reheated in a microwave oven, from which they emerged rather listless. The chebureks, fried to order, as well as the steamed manti, were better but left little impression — mainly because of their high dough to meat-onion-fat ratio. It was also a shame they couldn’t be ordered individually. Samarkand is not a small, homey kind of place to begin with, but premade (with the same exact cut and texture of meat in all of them, with none of the traditional differences) and the set ways in which certain things are sold can make it feel overly commercial.
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The skewer was pure enjoyment, though — juicy slices of beef and fat deliciously rolled together and grilled. Not that we need another version of meat wrapped in pastry, but we definitely know what we’ll be ordering the next time we pass by here and only want some grilled meat in a laffa flatbread. And considering that Samarkand’s meat skewers are slightly cheaper than the going rate, that’s looking like a pretty good option.
The turn of luck that began with the skewer continued with the summer dushpara, which was everything we had hoped for. Instead of the deep bowl of the classic dushpara, this was a giant, shallow bowl with a small amount of broth topped with about 20 meat dumplings, pieces of boiled lamb and a few carrots and chickpeas. It was a giant portion that could easily serve two or three, but more important, it was superb, largely because of the handmade dumplings with a delicate yet firm dough. Inside was the same meat we’d had before, but the encounter with the wonderful broth below upgraded everything on top. This dish preserves all the Bukharan magic of the dushpara and makes it a meal in itself. One that is just right even for those hot days when soup seems out of the question. And even if you’re one of those people who isn’t crazy about Bukharan food. Wait, seriously, is there anyone like that?
Samarkand. 74 Derekh Ben Zvi, Tel Aviv. 03-6811122. Sunday to Thursday 11 A.M. to midnight; Friday 10:30 A.M.to 3 P.M.; Saturday 6 P.M. to midnight.